Europa Plumes: New Evidence Found for Water on Jupiter Moon

Yes, Europa really is sending plumes of water into space

Yes, Europa really is sending plumes of water into space

Before ending its mission in 2003 with a planned crash into Jupiter's atmosphere, Galileo reported the first data suggestive of a liquid water ocean under Europa's surface.

NASA found more evidence of water plumes in Jupiter's moon Europa by poring over 20-year-old data from the Galileo probe in the 1990s.

Xianzhe Jia, a planetary scientist at the University of MI, heard astronomers suspected the plumes sat on the moon's equator, but couldn't get a good look at them with the Hubble Space Telescope, he told NPR.

Even crazier? We've had the data proving that the plumes exist since 1997. Now, a new study in Nature Astronomy not only proves they were right, but also confirms that it does something more awesome than they could have imagined: it shoots up out of the crust in big, lovely plumes.

If a plume were erupting, Jia says, the erupted water vapour and dust particles would be affected by magnetic fields, which is what the spacecraft detected. McGrath is part of the Europa Clipper science team, too. The magnetic field lines (depicted in blue) show how the plume interacts with the ambient flow of Jovian plasma. "So it's not a direct effect on the environment from the plume, it's a two-step process".

The newly analyzed Galileo data provides "compelling independent evidence that there seems to be a plume on Europa", said study lead author Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of MI.

The study, titled "Evidence of a plume on Europa from Galileo magnetic and plasma wave signatures", was published May 14 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Not everyone is convinced.

"These results provide strong independent evidence of the presence of plumes at Europa", they wrote in Nature. "I'd love there to be plumes, but I think we should all retain a healthier skepticism here". But many other attempted observations have turned up dry.

Following this discovery, researchers reviewed data from the Galileo mission that also flew over Jupiter in the 1990s.

The data were put through new and advanced computer models to untangle a mystery - a brief, localized bend in the magnetic field - that had gone unexplained until now.

Europa has been a high priority for scientists because, as an ice-covered moon with a subsurface salty liquid ocean, it has been identified as one of the ideal spots for hosting life in our solar system.

The potential existence of water captured the interest of scientists as it could mean the moon is able to support life. But determining habitability will be a major challenge.

Why did it take more than two decades to tease this result out of the Galileo data set?

Scanning the Canadian lakes for signs of basic microbial life could help scientists in the upcoming Clipper mission which will look for alien life on Europa. Even if scientists find organic compounds in the plumes, there's no guarantee they come from life. The mission will send a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of the icy moon.NASA has selected nine science instruments for the mission. But in 2008 NASA's Cassini spacecraft swing by the Saturnian moon of Enceladus and intentionally flew through one of the plumes of matter than the body periodically emits to examine what it contained.

Instead, scientists suspect that tidal heating caused by the gravitational pull of Jupiter could be pressurising the watery ocean beneath Europa's frozen surface and causing it to blow out through cracks in the surface.

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